Barcelona moved 14 points clear of Real Madrid in LaLiga as three second-half goals wrapped up a convincing 3-0 victory at the Estadio Bernabeu.
Zinedine Zidane’s men had the better of a tight first period but Barcelona took control in the second and Luis Suarez swept home the opener before a Lionel Messi penalty took the game beyond Real.
It was a strange spot-kick award by referee Jose Maria Sanchez Martinez, who could simply have awarded a goal rather than a penalty after Dani Carvajal handled on the line but then knocked the ball in as he lost his footing. The decision also saw Carvajal sent off.
Substitute Aleix Vidal added a third in stoppage time, and the title now looks almost certain to return to the Nou Camp as LaLiga prepares to enter its winter break.
Cristiano Ronaldo headed in off the underside of the bar for Real in the second minute but it was rightly disallowed for offside, as the hosts made a bright start.
The Portugal star then swung and missed at a low centre from Toni Kroos, with Andres Iniesta just getting to the loose ball ahead of the onrushing Carvajal to concede a corner.
Real were dominating possession and Messi dropped deeper and deeper in a bid to influence the game as the inclusion of Mateo Kovacic in Real’s midfield looked a masterstroke.
Messi almost created the opener on the half-hour mark as his angled pass picked out Paulinho’s run from deep but the Brazilian midfielder hooked his shot over.
Seconds later Barca goalkeeper Marc-Andre Ter Stegen stuck out a foot to divert a Ronaldo shot wide after the Portuguese cut in from the left.
Real goalkeeper Keylor Navas got down well to keep out a glancing Paulinho header five minutes before the break, and then Karim Benzema’s headed effort clipped the post after he got to Marcelo’s centre before defender Thomas Vermaelen.
Barcelona saw more of the ball in the early stages of the second half and took the lead in the 54th minute when Ivan Rakitic broke forward, spread the play right to Sergi Roberto and his low cross was side-footed home by Suarez.
Real’s frustration began to grow as Sergio Ramos was booked for a foul on Suarez, and Barca added a second in bizarre circumstances in the 64th minute.
Suarez had a shot blocked by Navas and then hit the post before Carvajal was sent off for a deliberate handball.
It was a controversial call to award the penalty and send the full-back off as the ball ended up in the net mere seconds later, but Messi’s confident penalty made sure there were no further recriminations.
Gareth Bale and Marco Asensio were brought on in a bid to give Real more cutting edge, and Ter Stegen reacted well to keep out a shot from the Welshman.
The Germany goalkeeper also made an impressive near-post block on a Ramos effort as Barca held firm at the back, and there was still time for a third after Vidal’s shot squirmed under Navas after good work from Messi on the right flank.
And while a win for the Catalans will take the league title further away from Zinedine Zidane‘s men, a few key battles might decide the outcome of the pre-Christmas clash.
It might seem rather odd to highlight two full-backs as a major key to the game’s tactical battle, but Spain international teammates Dani Carvajal and Jordi Alba are fundamental to their respective team’s attacking plans.
Alba, in particular, has become exceptionally important for Barcelona since the departure of Neymar, literally filling the void left by the Brazilian’s absence to become a major attacking presence down the left-hand side, being credited with five assists so far this season.
Alba possesses a great understanding with Lionel Messi, whose angled passes into the runs of the speedy full-back have been a highlight of the campaign so far.
Directly up against Alba will be Carvajal, whose similarly impressive athletic abilities allow him to cover the entire flank both in attack and defence, especially if Zidane persists with the narrow midfield diamond he has favoured in recent weeks.
However, the surging runs of Alba may force Carvajal into a more defensive approach than usual, and the battle between these two international colleagues will be very important to the outcome.
It’s stating the obvious that Messi has the central role in Barca’s creative play, but this season in particular he has become even more important than ever, filling two roles at once as a fairly conservative team’s main playmaker and chief goalscorer.
Under new coach Ernesto Valverde, Messi has now abandoned the right-wing role he occupied during Luis Enrique’s reign, instead being given a free hand to roam wherever he sees fit in a 4-4-1-1 formation.
Perhaps more than ever, he is dropping deep into midfield to spark attacks before then bursting into the box to finish them off, and the man who will have to stop him is Casemiro, Real’s physical and positionally disciplined enforcer in the centre of the pitch.
Casemiro is an outstanding defensive presence and certainly has the ability to shackle Messi, but he has a tendency for rash lunges and must be careful to avoid conceding needless free-kicks in and around the penalty area – especially if Messi can coax him into picking up a yellow card early on.
Barcelona fans were concerned to say the least when defensive rock Samuel Umtiti went down injured earlier this month, especially with Javier Mascherano also sidelined. Those absences left Thomas Vermaelen as Valverde’s only option to partner Gerard Pique, and it was feared the Belgian would be badly exposed as he made his first Barca appearances for nearly two years.
Vermaelen, however, has been excellent during his four games in the team, looking comfortable and assured, with no signs of the rustiness or hesitancy you might expect from a man with so little football under his belt in the last couple of years.
This weekend he has one of the most challenging opponents any central defender could face: Cristiano Ronaldo.
The Portuguese star is back in form after a slow start to the season, scoring eight goals in his last seven games, and it can be taken for granted he will have at least half a dozen attempts on goal.
Vermaelen’s task is to ensure those chances are as difficult as possible – as they would say in basketball, he has to prevent Ronaldo from getting ‘good looks’. If he succeeds, Barca will be well on their way to another clean sheet.
Here’s a look at five key stats.
EL CLASICO FORM ON MADRID’S SIDE
Barcelona may be unbeaten in the league this season but as far as the most recent Clasico meetings are concerned, Madrid are the ones with the upper hand.
The Catalans have won just once in the last five meetings between the two rivals, while Madrid have won three times.
MADRID ON THE VERGE OF MILESTONES
The hosts will be looking to score their 400th goal against Barcelona on Saturday and should they win, they will also have secured their 100th Clasico triumph in official as well as unofficial games.
RONALDO AND MESSI GUNNING FOR 2017 SUPREMACY
Ronaldo may have picked up all the accolades this year but Messi can still get one over the Portuguese star. Both players are locked on 53 goals for club and country in 2017.
Robert Lewandowski also has 53 to his name but doesn’t play again until 2018 while Edinson Cavani is also set to finish the year on 52. A straight shoot-out between Ronaldo and Messi in El Clasico will probably determine Europe’s top scorer for 2017, unless of course Harry Kane (50) can take advantage of his two games against Burnley and Southampton to leapfrog them all.
BARCELONA SCORING IS A GOOD BET
Regardless of whether they win the game or not, Barcelona hitting the back of the net at the Bernabeu is a fairly safe bet. The visitors have scored in each of the last 19 El Clasicos. Perhaps keeping a clean sheet will be their key to victory?
El Clasico has a reputation for being a heated affair and its disciplinary record certainly speaks for itself. A total of 416 bookings have been issued in this encounter with Madrid accounting for 370 yellows and Barcelona for 346.
Meanwhile, Los Blancos once again leads the way with send-offs, registering 31 to Barcelona’s 24.